Chicago Theater Review: MARVIN’S ROOM (Circle Studio Theatre in Oak Park)

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by Dan Zeff on August 23, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The audience never sees Marvin, the title character in Marvin’s Room. He’s an old man ravaged by cancer and senility, living in a dark room in his Florida home. His caregiver is his daughter Bessie, a 40-year old unmarried woman dying of leukemia. It’s a special play in modern American drama and those of us who saw its world premiere at the Goodman Studio Theatre back in February 1990 left the building moved and grateful for the experience. It was the only play by Scott McPherson; the American theater lost a singular voice when he died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 33. McPherson’s play is extraordinary in that the heartbreaking material is also very funny and very compassionate.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago review of MARVIN’S ROOM at Circle Theatre

The Circle Theatre is reviving Marvin’s Room in its new Studio space. It’s a daunting choice for the company and director Mary C. Redmon. The play requires a delicate touch so the sentiment doesn’t turn into bathos and the black humor stumble into vulgarity. The Circle production isn’t perfect, but it’s a brave and mostly successful attempt that does credit to the ensemble.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago review of MARVIN’S ROOM at Circle TheatreBessie, the central figure, is surrounded by a set of bizarre yet complementary characters who give the play’s outwardly realistic tone a surrealistic flavor. Bessie not only cares for her decaying father, she attends to Marvin’s elderly sister Ruth, a dotty old woman who has electrodes in her brain to stop the pain of three collapsed vertebrae; every time she activates the electrodes, the house’s garage door goes up.

Then there is Bessie’s hard-boiled sister Lee, a cosmetician and single mother with a whiff of trailer trash about her. Lee arrives from Ohio with her two troubled teen-aged sons, Hank and Charlie; she hasn’t seen her family in many years and her appearance reignites friction with Bessie that has lain dormant during their long separation. Hank has just been released from a mental institution, where he was being treated for anti-social behavior; his rebellious personality is taking his mother to the emotional edge. Adding to the play’s black comedy is a physician of stupendous insensitivity and even more stupendous incompetence who treats Bessie for her illness.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago review of MARVIN’S ROOM at Circle TheatreBessie is much put upon by all the supporting characters, but she is a genuinely good person, not a martyr to her family’s demands but a woman who takes pleasure in serving others. In one of the play’s most touching passages, she proclaims “I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much. I am so lucky to have loved so much. I am so lucky.”  This from a woman facing an unpleasant death from an incurable disease.

Casting needs to be pinpoint to make Marvin’s Room credible and not jokey or maudlin. While Amanda Hartley may be too young and attractive for Bessie—and could also project her voice a bit more—she still delivers a sensitive performance, especially in the second act when Bessie faces the finality of her condition; Hartley credibly exposes Bessie’s innate goodness, occasionally with a bit of an edge that enhances her humanity. Age is also a problem with Todd Aiello’s Hank: the character is maybe 18, but Aiello looks well into his 20’s, diminishing the character’s youthful vulnerability and the desperation seething within a lad getting a very rough ride from life; still, Aiello nicely peels away Hank’s belligerent façade to reveal the bruised, frightened personality within.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago review of MARVIN’S ROOM at Circle Theatre

Kate Kisner absolutely nails Ruth, giving the old lady a full measure of wackiness but sustaining her human qualities. Elizabeth Morgan is good as Lee, emotionally taxed by a failed marriage that left her with two difficult sons along with a family in Florida with needs she isn’t prepared to meet. Danny Mulae, who really is a teen-ager, is fine as Hank’s younger brother. To the best of their ability, these performers bring Bessie’s extended family alive with their distinctive blend of personal pain and absurdist comedy. The ensemble is rounded out by Elizabeth Shin, Liliana Mitchell, and Paul Chakrin (who provides the gibberish voice of the hidden Marvin). The entire cast develops great empathy for their characters.

Bob Knuth, who is responsible for the lighting, has also designed a flexible all-purpose set that fits nicely within the tight confines of the Circle Studio; Clare Kemock designed the costumes; and Kevin Bellie the sound.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago review of MARVIN’S ROOM at Circle Theatre

photos by Bob Knuth

Marvin’s Room
Circle Theatre
Circle Studio Theatre, 1010 Madison St in Oak Park
ends on September 30, 2012
for tickets, call 708-660-9540 or visit Circle Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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